Left out in their hour of need
The government could not spend two-thirds of its around Tk 25,000 crore cash-food support packages for the poor and vulnerable, frontline health workers and low-income farmers in the last year after its announcement.
During this period, 2.94 crore people and families have received financial aid and food assistance, according to a latest progress report by the Prime Minister's Office on the stimulus package prepared.
But, various studies of non-government organisations revealed, a large number of poor and marginalised people, hard-hit by the Covid-19-induced shutdown, remained outside the stimulus schemes.
After the pandemic hit the country in March last year, the government came up with a host of stimulus packages to help absorb the economic shock. Of the schemes, there were 12 packages involving Tk 24,973 crore for these groups.
The government could only spend around Tk 8,017 crore or 32.10 percent of the amount as of March, according to the PMO's progress report.
Experts said the government's response in rolling out the economic relief schemes was prompt and crucial to helping many industries, larger ones in particular, stay afloat and boost economic activities.
But the schemes could not reach many real beneficiaries like informal sector workers and the urban poor due to the lack of a comprehensive database of targeted beneficiaries, their selection criteria, and a well-designed monitoring system, they said.
"The government's stimulus packages are definitely praiseworthy, but their implementation is weak," said Selim Raihan, executive director of South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (SANEM), a think-tank.
"The people who were trying to turn around from the devastating impact of the pandemic have been affected once again in the second wave. If the government could implement to an extent closer to the total amount, these affected people would have had some benefits," he told The Daily Star.
According to SANEM's household survey in November-December last year, the poverty rate in Bangladesh increased from 20 percent in 2019 to 42 percent by the end of 2020.
Selim Raihan, also a professor at the economics department of Dhaka University, said a large number of people either lost their jobs or earned less because of the disruption in the labour market. A similar disruption was seen in the urban services sector.
"But the stimulus schemes to help these groups of people could not be fully implemented. As a result, the [unused] money had to be returned. This is something of a big concern," he said.
The government rolled out 23 Covid-19 bailout packages at different times since March last year when the country reported its maiden Covid-19 cases. The combined support now stands at Tk 1,24,053 crore, which is 4.4 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). There are some schemes which will be implemented in the next fiscal year.
Around 65 percent of the total has been disbursed till March, said the progress report.
Among these schemes, 12 packages are designed to provide food and cash support to the poor, special allowances and incentives to healthcare workers and selected farmers.
PACKAGES FOR THE POOR
One of the 12 packages was free distribution of rice, cash handovers and food for children to the people who became poor all of a sudden in the aftermath of the Covid-19 fallout. The government had allocated Tk 2,500 crore for this purpose, but could spend Tk 1,067 crore last year, according to the PMO progress report.
More than 2.54 crore people and families in 496 upazilas and municipalities got the assistance, mostly food, in April, May and June last year under the package, implemented by the Department of Disaster Management.
The department did not distribute the assistance to the affected people this year yet, said the report.
Good progress was made in the open market sale operation of rice at Tk 10 per kilogramme. The food ministry spent almost the entire Tk 770 crore allocated for this package, being implemented among low-income groups in rural and urban areas.
Over 49.49 lakh families in all the unions across the country were beneficiaries of this programme that went on for two months -- April and May -- last year.
On the other hand, 21 lakh families in all 375 municipalities, 11 city corporations and 53 district town areas had the opportunity to buy the rice at the subsidised price for three months from April to June.
The government faced difficulties in distributing a one-off cash incentive to a selected 50 lakh families last year.
Under the Tk 1,258 crore package, each of 50 lakh families were supposed to get cash support of Tk 2,500. However, only Tk 880 crore was spent.
The target beneficiaries included rickshaw pullers, day labourers, construction workers, farmers, shop employees, people working at small businesses, and transport workers.
But the distribution of money was stopped midway following allegations of anomalies in the list of beneficiaries with names of solvent people found on it.
Later, the finance division cross-checked all the names, using multilayer scrutiny and databases, and struck 14.32 lakh names off the list.
Finally, the government distributed the incentive among 34,97,353 families.
Speaking about the package, Selim Raihan said it was unfortunate that the government could not achieve the target due to anomalies.
"The loopholes and anomalies in the listing process of the beneficiaries need to be addressed," he said.
The SANEM executive director thinks that a one-off cash support of Tk 2,500 during this crisis is not enough for the affected poor families. "Such cash support should have been given for at least three months."
These 34.97 lakh families will get the same amount of cash assistance this time again under a Tk 930 crore stimulus scheme. Around 1 lakh farmers of 36 districts who suffered loss of the Boro crop due to the nor'wester and heatwave in the first week of April will also get a one-time cash support of Tk 5,000 each under the package.
Selim Raihan said the government has a database of people under its social protection programmes, but it did not have exact data on the "new poor".
He suggested that the government identify the real beneficiaries through a combined effort, engaging stakeholders at different levels, especially the public representatives, NGOs, volunteer organisations, and local administrations in its listing process.
"We should think of saving life and livelihood and reach out to the poor and vulnerable people who need such social protection," he added.
POOR PROGRESS FOR JOBLESS WORKERS
The government could not make progress in implementing the cash transfer package for the laid-off, disabled, and insolvent workers of export-oriented garment, leather, and footwear manufacturing units.
Of the Tk 1,500 crore scheme announced in September last year, the government could disburse only Tk 5.43 crore as of March, the progress report said.
Some 6,031 workers got the cash benefits although several lakh workers in these sectors have been rendered jobless due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
HEALTHCARE LESS CARED FOR
The government in July last year set aside an allocation of Tk 100 crore as a special honorarium for doctors, nurses and health workers directly involved in the treatment of Covid-19 patients. But it could spend only Tk 37.38 crore as of this March, the progress report said.
As many as 8,173 health workers -- including 2,320 doctors and 3,554 nurses -- received the honorarium, a one-off amount equivalent to two basic salaries so far, it said.
Officials at the finance ministry blamed a delay on the part of the health ministry in sending a list of recipients for the late disbursement of the funds.
The case was similar when it came to handing compensation to healthcare professionals, members of law enforcement agencies and armed forces, and other government officials and employees and field officers who are on the frontlines risking their lives.
The government allocated Tk 750 crore for this purpose, but it could spend Tk 55 crore as of March, according to the PMO's progress report.
Families of 128 deceased frontliners got the compensation, Tk 1 crore to each, till March, it said.
Finance ministry sources said families of 68 members of police got the compensation -- the highest among all other frontliners. The compensation was also doled out to 13 doctors and 18 nurses, they said.
ALLOWANCES TO ELDERLY PEOPLE, WIDOWS
The government prepared a new package involving Tk 815 crore to increase the social safety net allowances among the elderly poor, widows, deserted and destitute women of 112 poverty-prone upazilas to 100 percent.
Once started, it will enable around 11 lakh additional beneficiaries to get the allowances.
A significant progress was made in the implementation of another package -- free housing for homeless people. Against an allocation of Tk 2,310 crore, the Department of Disaster Management has built 81,683 houses at a cost of Tk 1,474 crore.
Besides, the government will soon bring elderly poor, widows, deserted and destitute women of 150 other poverty-prone upazilas under its social safety net programme.
AGRICULTURE SECTOR LAGS BEHIND
The Tk 3,200 crore stimulus package to speed up mechanised farming saw poor progress as the agriculture ministry could spend only Tk 169 crore.
Under the scheme, the government provided 1,240 combine harvesters, 499 reapers and 13 rice transplanters to around 1.50 lakh growers at the upazila level from April to June last year.
The government included an agricultural subsidy in a stimulus package of Tk 9,500 crore in the current fiscal year, giving food security the utmost importance in the wake of the pandemic.
"All the farmers of the country are direct or indirect beneficiaries of the programme," said the progress report.
The agriculture ministry disbursed around Tk 3,559 crore as of March.